During the offseason, Washington Capitals goalie Don Beaupre and Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Tom Kurvers work out at the same health club in suburban Minneapolis. Yesterday the topic of discussion was the big money that Capitals defenseman Scott Stevens is going to make after signing an offer sheet with the St. Louis Blues.

"Tom was pretty excited, especially being a defenseman," Beaupre said. "I guess I was surprised at the numbers and that it was St. Louis, which is not really a high-paying team. But I'm not surprised that a guy like Scott could get that."

In signing the offer sheet -- which a source said will pay him an average of $1.3 million a season over the four-year (three, plus an option year) deal -- Stevens set tongues to wagging.

"I gulped at that one," said Rob Ingraham, an agent who represents several NHL players, including Capitals center Mike Ridley.

There are several categories of free agents, but the system is such that the most sought-after players (based on experience and talent) have the least chance to move. Stevens is the first in the elite group to do so since the compensation formula was put in place in 1982.

Stevens, 26, just completed his eighth season with the Capitals. The franchise enjoyed its greatest playoff success this past season, advancing beyond the Patrick Division for the first time.

In May a 17-year-old girl told police that three players were involved in sexually assaulting her and that Stevens witnessed the incident. A grand jury decided not to indict the players. Stevens could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"It {the offer sheet} was absolutely unrelated," said Stevens's agent, Rick Bennett. "When you're talking about the numbers we were talking about, there was no decision to make."

The Capitals have until Thursday to match the St. Louis offer. If General Manager David Poile meets it, Stevens will remain on the squad. Poile also could match the offer and then work a trade. If he chooses not to match it, the Blues would be required to pay the Capitals $100,000 and two first-round draft picks within the top seven overall during the next three drafts. If the Blues cannot supply two picks within the top seven, then they would owe the Capitals a total of five first-round picks.

An indication of the new ground being broken is that Poile was waiting for a league interpretation on whether the five picks would be within six or seven years. It is one part of the question facing Poile: to match or not to match.

"I have to have a lot of meetings with a lot of people in our organization," Poile said yesterday. "I've made calls {yesterday} and will over the weekend. I have a feeling it will come to a deadline decision."

Other than the person who might fill Stevens's spot in the lineup, the rest of the Capitals would love to see Stevens, one of the league's better defensemen, return. His new salary would give the rest more bargaining power. Even though others might not be as valuable -- and some will argue they are more so -- the salary structure would be completely reshaped.

Last season Stevens made $300,000, according to NHL Players Association figures. Goalie Mike Liut, who was obtained in March from Hartford, brought a contract that paid him $455,000 a year. According to union figures, Dino Ciccarelli earned $380,000 and captain Rod Langway made $342,000 plus $75,000 in deferred compensation.

"It's good for everybody to see a guy like Scott getting that," said Ridley, who made $197,500 last season and is one of about a dozen Capitals entering the option year of their contracts. "Hopefully, it will eventually filter down. If they keep Scott, he would be making more than double anybody else. I don't think that would be a problem {as far as relations among players}, but it might be a problem for negotiations in the future -- on their side."

Like Stevens, Beaupre is a free agent subject to compensation. He made $225,000 last season and Poile has made the required offer of a 15 percent raise to guarantee his rights to compensation. The negotiations with Beaupre have not started in earnest, but they certainly won't be resolved before Thursday. Poile has his hands full and Beaupre would want to wait to see if the parameters of the team's salary structure change.

Ingraham said that while any big raise such as this generally helps all players, he did not anticipate being able to use it when he negotiates Ridley's next deal.

"I don't see David matching it," Ingraham said. "If David does match it, he's inviting an open season in terms of other players, starting with Mr. Langway, working all the way down. It would distort the salary structure dramatically."

Bennett said he did not know whether Poile would match the Blues' offer, but he indicated some doubt.

"I assume when David told me the numbers we were looking for were, basically, out of the ballpark from the Capitals' perspective, he meant it," Bennett said. "We were not on the same page, not even in the same book."